Saturday Matinee: Zerograd (aka Zero City, City of Zero)

Review by Movies Unchained

Absurdity can take many different forms, particularly when it comes to artistic expression, with many individuals over the past century making their living from subverting the central tenets of reality. One such artist was Karen Shakhnazarov, whose ambition film Zerograd (Russian: Gorod Zero) holds the distinction of being one of the most bizarre works of cinema produced in the last few decades. A strange, hypnotic voyage into a darker version of the world, this film feels like the perverted offspring of David Lynch and Andrei Tarkovsky (especially if they collaborated on a twisted version of Alice in Wonderland), and I don’t think there is a single moment in this film that I was in complete awe of. Cinema is supposed to be challenging, and it doesn’t get more impenetrable than this, where Shakhnazarov takes us on a voyage that is somehow both hilarious and utterly terrifying, showing us a side of society that isn’t familiar to anything the best of us have experienced ourselves, but still manages to be as captivating as anything else. A deliriously work of experimental dark comedy, Zerograd is quite an achievement – and kudos has to go to Shakhnazarov for managing to construct something so bewildering, yet so deeply brilliant in both how it provokes certain ideas while remaining quite stable and consistent in its message (at least after we actually figure out what this film is attempting to convey), which creates a sensational piece of filmmaking that tests the boundaries of reality and presents the viewer with something so singularly unique, one would be forgiven for believing that Zerograd isn’t actually a film, but a fever-induced bout of delusions – and for all these reasons and more, we can easily proclaim this film as something of a hidden masterpiece, an outrageous, disconcerting surrealist odyssey that is as entertaining as it is wholly disruptive, both to the art form in which it was made and in terms of the broader socio-cultural implications embedded within it.

The film centres on Alexey Varakin (Leonid Filatov), a regular civil engineer who is sent to a small town in the middle of nowhere to meet with the owner of a factory to discuss some of the products they have been supplying. What was supposed to be a brief day-trip turns into what appears to be an eternity, especially when it becomes clear that everything isn’t what it seems in this mysterious countryside hamlet. His visit takes a horrifying turn when Alexey witnesses the suicide of a chef, which not only traumatizes him, but also places him at the centre of a conspiracy that points to him as the chief suspect, especially when the perspective of the event changes from suicide to a murder. What Alexey doesn’t realize is that he is stuck here – it is physically impossible for him to move beyond the borders of the town, since there are certain metaphysical forces keeping him there. This is made clear when he visits a museum, where the crotchety curator (Yevgeny Yevstigneyev) gives him a tour, taking him to subterranean levels and relaying the history of the town, which stretches all the way back to the formative years of the USSR and the rise of communism across the Soviet Union. Despite being a mild-mannered working-class man, Alexey is seen as something of an anomaly in this town, a stranger sent there by some celestial being to disrupt the lives of the residents – but it soon becomes clear that he’s not the one to fear, since a looming sense of foreboding lingers over the town, and causes the protagonist to reevaluate not only his own life, but the entire concept of reality in general, as everything around him is starting to point to the fact that everything Alexey knew to be true is quite possibly false information, and he himself is at risk of losing his identity as a whole if he doesn’t solve the problem before its too late.

Zerograd is a very different kind of film in every conceivable way. It positions itself as something of a mystery film, but one that dares to ask what happens when someone is investigating something and searching for the truth when every clue not only distances him further from the answer, but proves the incredulity of reality as a whole. This is a mystery film that struggles to even ask a coherent question – if anything, the answers are there, if only we knew where to start looking for them. Shakhnazarov masterfully constructs one of the most fascinating films of its era, a hauntingly dark comedy that eviscerates the very idea of plausibility, going beyond the confines of surrealism and becoming something else entirely, a kind of cold-blooded psychological horror that is more terrifying the more we realize how the sense of danger isn’t just constructed for dramatic purposes, but rather a fundamental aspect of the story. Modern audiences tend to equate the concept of surrealism with the idea of weird works that are artistically transgressive and show a lack of logic – and while this is often very true, its a baseline assessment that can’t apply particularly well to a work like Zerograd, which thrives on its ability to deconstruct nearly every sacrosanct truth while still retaining a coherent, concise narrative that goes to some bizarre narrative territory, but only for the sake of supporting its own ambitious ideas. There are many aspects of Zerograd that positively yearn to be discussed – and I’d expect some background knowledge of Soviet-era politics, while not essential in any way, would only enrich the experience, and help add context to a work of unhinged socio-cultural satire that masters the fine art of amusing the audience while gradually dismantling their deep-seated beliefs, to the point where we too get lost in this world, and begin to question our own individual realities.

We never quite know where this film is heading, and like any work of great surrealism, a clear sense of direction is entirely inconsequential. A brief roadmap of ideas is presented at the outset of Zerograd, but for the most part, it functions as a stream-of-consciousness odyssey that launches us into an uncanny world that feels familiar, but where the smallest inconsistencies prevent us from ever being at ease. The character of Alexey is our surrogate, an ordinary man thrown into these strange circumstances, and forced to navigate a side of the world he isn’t only unfamiliar with, but struggles to understand in any meaningful way. There is certainly some strange occurrences that take place throughout this film, with these events ranging from mildly amusing in how offbeat they are, to fully terrifying, especially when they hint at something far more sinister lurking beneath the surface. There’s quite a bit to digest when it comes to this film, where each individual idea can be unpacked – but as should be familiar to any devotee to the school of surrealism, the more you provoke a theme, the less effective it is. Zerograd works most effectively when each individual concept is taken as part of some larger whole, and while the details make for a fascinating film, the brilliance comes in the cumulative power, the gradually-compounding unearthliness that indicates that the eccentricities embedded within this story are not there merely for the sake of perplexing the audience, but rather to manipulate the entire concept of reality and everything it stands for, which is precisely what makes this such a remarkable film. It only makes the actual filmmaking more effective – Shakhnazarov constructs such a magnificent odyssey, where each frame is stunningly detailed, detached from reality in a way that doesn’t confuse us, but still points towards a more haunting alternative. There are some unforgettable images in this film, such as when the main character is served a cake that is modelled after his own head, or the striking final shot where he is finally able to makes his escape – and when taken alongside the brilliant story, we have a truly memorable work of speculative fiction.

Zerograd is a film in which the plot doesn’t revolve around the fact that nothing seems real – this is a film where we know for a fact that absolutely nothing we are seeing makes sense, but yet it is so grounded in some fundamentally realistic ideas, it never feels too far-fetched. There is an eerie sense of foreboding that intermingles with the darkly comic underpinnings to create quite a memorable piece that delves deeply into looking at the themes of identity and freedom, two concepts that are often explored in Soviet-era literature, albeit not in quite as bizarre a way as here. Shakhnazarov is a masterful filmmaker who produced something truly incredible with Zerograd, crafting a surreal odyssey that feels so compelling, even when it is clear that it is not afraid to venture beyond the confines of all known logic. This is the kind of film that people should be referring to when they’re describing the concept of a Kafka-esque story, since everything about Zerograd feels like something the esteemed but troubled author would write – a mysterious setting, a protagonist thrown into a world he doesn’t understand, eccentric characters that are so familiar yet so deeply unsettling, and a general sense of danger that never quite abates, constantly following the protagonist (and by extension, the audience) the further we journey through this strange world. This is a film that should be seen and discussed, even if the most insightful academics would have trouble coming to terms with the ideas Shakhnazarov uses throughout the film. In short, Zerograd is an astounding achievement, a bewildering but truly worthwhile absurdist masterpiece of Russian cinema that traverses reality and comes out of it stranger and more profoundly fascinating than ever before.

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